It's election day, and let's say you want to use your vote to protect the environment, to fight climate change, and to push for cleaner air and energy. Who's your guy?
No-brainer, you might say. You'd vote for the candidate who still vows to help combat global warming, who actively supports renewable energy, who made some tangibly significant strides towards decarbonizing our economy, and who does not routinely tout a 5-point economic plan wherein step one is: Drill Everywhere.
But it's a little more complicated than that. Mitt Romney has fought coal in his past life as a moderate, Obama is pretty drill-crazy too at the moment, and neither has outlined substantive plans to address global warming should they win the next term. Then there's the real live, deeply environmentalist candidate on the ballot—Jill Stein of the Green Party, who'd be the staunchest environmental advocate a Treehugger could ask for. She also has roughly the same statistical chance of winning this election as this blog post has of winning a Pulitzer.
So here's a slightly more nuanced overview of what voting for each candidate likely means, in terms of the impact on climate and environmental issues. Starting with, a vote for:
Now, I don't believe that Mitt Romney has any special disdain for conservation issues, nor for environmentalists, clean energy, or climate science. But the fundamental key to understanding the man who is Mitt is that he truly holds few fundamental political beliefs. He has no special disdain for any issue, nor any particular passion. Maybe, at the core of his being, he thinks taxes should be lower. But that's about it. Pretty much everything else is up in the air—he's waffled over abortion, climate, immigration, etc—so his policies will be sculpted more by the caprices of the conservative political climate of any given moment. Now, this is always true to some extent; presidents and would-be presidents must appeal to the most powerful factions of their party. But right now, that faction, the anti-regulation Tea Party-fueled contingent, is as environmentally reckless as any we've ever seen.
For example: I don't really think Mr. Romney personally has much interest in rolling back environmental regulations, but that is a chief aim of the current House of Reps, who have routinely voted to do so over the last four years. They've earned the moniker "most anti-environment House in history" from the sheer number of times they've voted to remove pollution protections and protect oil interests. They are also exceptionally and vocally ignorant of scientific matters, from reproductive health to climate science. And Romney will be eager to win their favor.
So, Romney will act as enabler to that host of anti-regulation hawks who arrived in office in 2010's tea party tidal wave, financed in part by fossil fuel industry interests like those infamous Koch bros everyone loves to hate. That's frightening enough. But let's look at what Romney himself has said he'll do should he win office:
He'll approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He says he'll sign the permits "on day one."
He mocked Obama's (admittedly pompously-worded) pledge to fight climate change in his speech at the RNC.
In the second debate, Romney defended oil subsidies. Meanwhile, he opposes tax credits for renewable energy; in his view, the government should aid oil companies, but not solar or wind outfits. Also, a prominent, real-life oil executive actually helped write his proposed energy plan. Seriously.
Romney once railed against a coal plant, but that was when it threatened the health of Massachusetts voters, and shutting it down seemed popular. Now he accuses Obama for being too harsh on coal.
Romney has faulted Obama for not drilling for oil and gas aggressively enough, and boasts that he would do so on more public lands if given the opportunity. This, as mentioned, is the very first bullet point on the top of his enormously vague economic agenda.
In sum, Romney has never once shown a presidentially-minded desire to address climate change, he has never alluded to harboring conservationist principles of any kind, and he is vigorous in his support for the fossil fuel industry. The closest he ever came to uttering a green sentiment is when he said he supports clean energy research—yet he'd strip the industry's tax breaks.
A vote for Romney is a vote to completely and utterly disregard the major environmental concerns of our day, and to ignore altogether that scientists say we are approaching a climate crisis. .
Barack Obama, he who swept into office upon a million lofty green hopes, deserves criticism for failing to make climate change more of a central issue during his first term. Scientists warn that the emissions trajectory we're on right now will lead us to crisis, yet the president shied from leading on the issue due to its perceived political volatility.
And he's been no eager to expand coal mining and natural gas fracking operations; we've seen oil drilling increase under his tenure. He's digging up fossil fuels at the moment they most need be left in the ground.
But we forget the long list of achievements Obama has delivered.
He invested billions of stimulus dollars in renewable energy R&D and green jobs programs. Solyndra may have failed, but the vast majority of others have not; the clean energy industry has thrived under Obama's tenure. The U.S. further developed its lead in cleantech, and in renewable energy deployment—the energy technologies of the future are incubating right now, many with funds made available by the loan and grant programs in Obama's stimulus. And we doubled our share of clean power generation over the last four years.
Obama reactivated the E.P.A. He chose a tough, progressive leader in Lisa Jackson and pushed the agency to resume protecting public health and to rein in scofflaw corporate polluters. Also importantly, the E.P.A. was finally able to fulfill its mandate from the Supreme Court to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
In the good intentions department: The president has also fought for the removal of billions of dollars in oil subsidies, supported cap and trade legislation, dedicated billions to high speed rail funding (before it was rejected by Republicans) and has stated a goal for the U.S. to get 80% of its power from renewable sources (and/or magical thinking) by 2050.
Finally, there's the fuel economy standards, which are probably Obama's signature environmental achievement. The deal he negotiated with the auto industry, which will ensure that new cars get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, will save 3.1 million barrels of oil per day by 2030. And it will prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere in the process, of course.
After his first year or two in office, pundits were throwing around catchphrases like "the greenest president in history." The failure of meaningful climate legislation put an end to such talk, but it's worth remembering that considerable progress was made—and that Obama's intention is to mitigate climate change. It's just no longer a priority.
And that may be damning enough, for those well-acquainted with the possible futures of a globally warmed world; Obama's climate silence, his failure to work miracles with the most partisan and gridlocked Congress in living memory. His less-than-eagerness to try to make a robust case to act on climate to the American people.
So you could vote for Jill Stein, the appropriately green candidate for the Green Party. My colleague Mat has even put together a list of states where you can vote for a third party candidate without helping to deliver it into Mitt's mitt (although he's more sanguine about Obama's chances than I; Pennsylvania and even Minnesota are too close for comfort...). So if you're in New York or California, say—or Texas or Wyoming—you could voice your frustration with a shout-out to Stein.
Otherwise, especially if you live in a swing state, the choice is clear. Romney has made no effort to even pander to the environmentally concerned, and that's saying something. With Romney at the helm, and a GOP-controlled House at his back, the stage will be set for some truly ruinous anti-environmental legislation. Long held protections on clean air and water could be whittled away. We'll get worse than climate silence; we'll see halcyon days for corporate polluters and resource extractors.
A vote for Obama would keep that prospect at bay—and allow for the possibility that he would continue the work he started in his first year as president.